Millennium Post

Stop, Start, Stop

Africa has often been described as a ‘stop-start-stop’ continent and it is hard to find fault with this assessment. It is a continent of extremities. One moment we are witnessing a great boom of optimism and potential (the 2010 South African World Cup), the oil boom (Angola, Equatorial Guinea) and the next moment it is a coup in Mali, an impending one in Central African Republic and a ceaseless war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like a revolving door cynicism alternates with optimism, it depends on which side of the door you are standing. The progression, be it industrial, agricultural or whatever is almost always erratic. All of this is evident when you review the output of literature from the continent over the last five decades.

African literature was off to a good start back in the 1960s before it was embroiled in language and identity issues. Before the essence of telling our stories in foreign languages, English and French, were questioned by scholars; the production of literary material was prodigious. Universities, especially in the commonwealth (Ibadan, Lagos in Nigeria, Makerere in Uganda, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Dar-es-salaam in Tanzania) were prolific breeding grounds of poetry and prose that would later become canons and unparalleled in terms of ideological output when compared to the present generation of literary material.

Think about the forefathers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Leopold Sengor, WoleSoyonka, SembeneOusmane and Ayi Kweyi Arma. They set the literary scene aflame with some really good stuff. Although separated by the language barrier, both Francophone and Anglophone literature were exciting and they tried their best to import the colourful language, style and tradition of the African story telling custom, something in which Achebe particularly excelled. Iconic Ghanaian-British-American philosopher Kwame Antony Appiah called him the father and the godfather of African literature.

Sengor was the leading proponent of Negritude ideology alongside Aime  Cesaire. The Afrocentric ideology would later be dismissed as racist by Europeans and Wole Soyinka effectively killed and buried it when he declared that a tiger does not proclaim its ‘tigritude’, it pounces. Soyinka himself went ahead to master the queen’s language in an enviable way and penned highly entertaining and provocative plays and poems, that is for those who could understand him.

Soyinka’s knowledge of the Yoruba mythologies and traditions coupled with superb and excellent linguistic flair put him ahead as one of the most celebrated African writers, even though he has been read by practically  fewer Africans than say Achebe or Ngugi. That he is obscure is not in doubt. That he won the Nobel Prize is not questionable. Although distinguished, his insistence of using metaphors and obscure language that are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man has alienated a large constituency of readers that would have otherwise benefitted from his excellent mastery of the English language, wit and wisdom.

Western Africa beats the rest of Africa hands down in terms of output. In East Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong’o probably is better known, even though he has dedicated all his latter-day energies to the impractical idea of writing in indigenous languages. On this one, he is right but it is one of those hard facts that we must learn to live with: it can’t work, won’t work and will never work.

For instance, this writer is working on his first novel due in October and cannot afford to write in his native Ekegusii language. With that he can only access less than a million readers. But if he wrote in a more accessible language like English, more people will read it, and not just in Kenya but everywhere in the world where the English language is spoken. The multiple languages in Africa have been more of a curse than a blessing. But these forefathers put the African literature in context and provided fodder for debates that have informed intellectual discourse in humanities and social sciences in postcolonial Africa ever since.


One can argue safely that after the 60s, nothing significant came out of these gentlemen. And the ensuing period only saw a number of essays from the individuals, a thousand critics and the literature became disoriented and muddled. This happened at a time when Lusophone literature was ripe as Angola and Mozambique were struggling against the tyrannically abusive regimes. Because of the language barrier, the novel and the poetry from these regions never quite got enough exposure to Anglophone Africa.

In South Africa, the poem and the short story were the preferred outlets even though Alan Paton and Peter Abraham gave the novel a shot. But the censorship and the absolute apartheid regime greatly imperiled writing in South Africa with many writers such as Alex La Guma going to exile and eventually dying there.  Generally, the 70s, 80s, 90s were slower in terms of serious literature. Wars, corruption, neo-colonialism, disillusionment, HIV/AIDS became the new themes but the writers could not master the requisite ideological conviction to enlighten the world about the plight of the continent. The reading culture in Africa has contributed to the vicissitudes of the African literature. Something though must be said about the Nobel Prize for Literature. Africa has now won four Nobels.

The question still remains; can there ever be a smooth and continuous transition from the old generation to younger generation seamlessly. At the moment it is discontinuous, and it is in a sorry state.

Conceived by Kalyan Mukherjee, Consulting Editor, Africa Research by Aman Ramrakha
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